Building a network of innovation through robotics
As they prepared for their participation in a robotics world championship, the members of Emmett J. Conrad High School’s RoboChargers—newly minted as state champions in UIL Robotics—were encouraged by their coach to be proud of themselves and stay focused.
“Be proud of what you’ve accomplished,” said Rex Lees, engineering teacher and robotics coach. “Be proud of what you’ve done as a team. Feel good about what’s been happening.”
His words were meant to remind the team of how far they have come this year—months of preparation, working with a team of mentors who work in STEM careers—to win the state championship and to make it to the FIRST Robotics Championship in Houston, where they have a chance at a world title.
The championship taking place through Sunday is a culminating international event for the youth robotics competition season and is an annual celebration of science, technology, engineering and math.
Lees, who teaches four sections of robotics, had 120 students sign up for robotics classes this school year.
“For the first time, we had all four robotics classes build a robot and compete, to various degrees of success,” he said.
Of all the students learning about the growing field of robotics, 26 competed at the state level and are currently at the world competition.
“There are 600 teams from everywhere,” he said of the challengers his students will face. “There are teams from Turkey, Israel, India, Mexico, Brazil and several Canadian teams. All of the students are 18 and under.”
While he is excited about the growth of robotics at Conrad, Lees would like it to become even bigger throughout the district.
“One of our goals is robotics for all. STEM education for all,” he said. “We want to make sure that everyone feels safe and welcome and that’s one of the reasons why we’ve been able to do many of the things we’re doing.”
Lees first discovered his love of teaching when he was in graduate school. He had already been working as a chemical engineer, making polymers and resins for a paint company, when he decided to go back to school. His undergraduate degree is in biology with focuses on biochemistry and genetics.
Lees said he kind of always knew he would be an educator, as his mom and his four grandparents were all teachers.
“I was raised by educators and both of my grandmothers and my mother’s father were math teachers. My other grandfather taught shop and drafting,” he said.
“I had taught biology, chemistry and anatomy for many years and have had a penchant for leadership to an extent,” he said. “I was told [in my previous district] that they would like to put me in an engineering role.”
That’s when his journey into robotics began and brought him to the district. Lees joined Dallas ISD last school year at Conrad High School. He quickly noticed the level of support the mentors provided to students.
“In the beginning of last year, we had 10 to 12 mentors and now we have 16,” he said. “It’s amazing to have these professionals come together to make this happen and share their knowledge with the students.”
“We work together and go to competitions. I see that we’re not the only team that does this. And there’s all these teams in the state that are our team friends.” In fact, Lees says these competitions are often called “coopertitions.”
One of the things that he likes most of what he does is bringing opportunities to his students that will open doors for them in the future.
“Every bit of this is engineers showing the design process in real time, in a timed situation, in a deadline situation, where we don’t always know the answer and figure it out,” he said. “Walking students through the process, they’re seeing how design happens. Some of them are learning how to use tools for the first time—little to complex things, like how to program an app.”
Lees believes that the competitions and these experiences are setting his students up for success, and will help them have access to resources, such as internships and future jobs.
“They’re building this giant network, so all these kids get the opportunity to meet all these STEM professionals,” he said. “During the competition, we tell them to meet the other people and ask them questions and network. Not only are they getting this knowledge and inspiration from our mentors, they’re getting it from other mentors. I want this to spread to education at large.”